High heat adds to obstacles for intense training exercise

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WHITESTOWN — The week of high unbearable heat was good for at least one thing: presenting the law enforcement agencies at the annual Excelsior Challenge with a unique and unexpected obstacle.

Crime and terrorism don’t take a break when the temperature is pushing 90-degrees. And SWAT teams don’t have summertime bullet proof vests for really hot days.

Dozens of law enforcers from multiple agencies across New York State suffered and sweated through their gear at the New York State Preparedness Training Center for several days of intense, realistic training this week. The Excelsior Challenge gathered together SWAT teams, bomb squads and other specialized units for hands-on operations.

Among the agencies was the Department of Environmental Conservation, testing out their new aerial drone program in law enforcement situations.

“This is an excellent
opportunity for us to test some of our programs, some of the limitations we have with some of the technology. And also expose some these other law enforcement groups with some of the technology that is available,” said Captain Ben Bramlage, with the Environmental Conservation Police.

“This is a relatively new program for us, it’s a pilot program. It’s been active, really active, just about a year now. So for us, it’s an opportunity to test these in various different conditions — today, obviously, being very hot,” Bramlage said.

“So we can see what we’re dealing with: batteries overheating, impacts on battery life, the iPads overheating; things like that.”

The DEC brought two off-the-shelf, commercially available drones to fly during the training scenarios. Both drones were built to withstand the heat, but the remote pilots did have trouble with overheating batteries and iPads, which are used as control scenes, he stated.

Bramlage said the drones have about 15 to 20 minutes of airtime before they need to be switched out. On Wednesday, their onboard cameras were used to provide a bird’s-eye-view of a training simulation at a rural mobile home, to help police get a bigger picture view of the situation.

“We anticipate law enforcement applications at some point in the future — hopefully the relatively near future — but privacy issues still have to be ironed out at the state level,” Bramlage explained. For now, the DEC uses drones for damage assessments in emergency situations and for exploring out-of-the-way areas that are difficult for humans to reach — especially useful in the fish and wildlife industry.

Other training scenarios this week included dealing with potential terrorists at a motor vehicle checkpoint and taking down gunmen at a nightclub shooting — modeled after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Florida in June 2016 that left 49 people dead.

The Preparedness Center used their warehouse-sized Cityscape for the nightclub shooting scenario.

“When you do realistic training, the line between realism and training becomes a lot thinner, which means you perform at a much higher level,” said Police Officer Michael Demaio of the Westchester County Police Special Response Team. He led a SWAT team into one of the nightclub scenarios.

“We operate in a high stress environment. Athletes who perform at a high level are used to being in their stressful roles, like the Sunday game, the fourth quarter,” Demaio explained.

“You’re in those roles over and over and over again, you start to think less about the stress and more about the performing, and you can fall back on your talent, your tactics and your teammates.”

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